Roses are red, violets are blue, and life is a journey for us all. That commonplace opening was intended as an attempt not to start a post by “Today”, which over the months/years can become quite tricky. That said, maybe I should take my own hint and quit blogging altogether, for fear of repeating myself. Yet, every day at school seems to bring new experiences and emotions, and I can’t quite leave it just now.
Today (ah, massive fail, I used it again) showed once again continuity in unexpected encounter and taught me some more about teaching.
In our further learning courses on “how to teach to refugee kids”, we were given piles and piles of paper. Some of them useful, others, less so. I mean, talk about intuitiveness. When you’re in a classroom you can hardly raise your hand and be like “hang on a second, here’s a new situation, let me flick through that powerpoint we were given last week about how to handle this and you’ll have my attention back”. Also, maybe that’s just me being insubordinate, but one doesn’t really learn how to interact with people, since it is just what it is called: Interaction: when two people or objects act upon one another and has a consequence, it produces an effect, a reaction. And really, are we supposed to learn that from a textbook? Ah but if only life was to be learned in a textbook! But no, it’s a bit more adventurous and uncertain/thrilling: there are as many possible interactions as there are people and possibilities. Granted, for people who have never been in a classroom, there are a lot of things one can gather by attending these classes. But when those kids have been part of your life for the past two years, I would rather rely on my instincts, when confronted to a new situation. If I really don’t have a clue, then I’ll definitely rely on powerpoint courses. Thankfully, so far, such occurrences were seldom. This long introduction to come to that point: sometimes it’s best to let oneself be surprised by what happens rather than to try and plan it carefully so as to be prepared to face any contingencies.
It begins with finding a room with a few computers; so I pick the kids from Building N°2 and we trot noisily (them, not me) along the corridors. One set of stairs climbed, first floor reached. Second set of stairs climbed, second floor reach… and we have a winner, I got confused and we have to go all the way downstairs again where the computer rooms are. The kids are laughing at me, fair enough, I deserve it. They trot along, arriving to the Holy Grail/computer room, and trotz (in spite of) me having duly filled out the requested form in advance, the said room happens to be already taken. We trot further, leave Building n°3, go back to number One. Finally, a room with a few screen is free.
I have begun a project with the kids that involve them making their own poster from scratch. They can pick any topic they want, provided it brings them joy to talk about it and they find enough information in their own language that they can afterwards translate into German to fill the poster with. They are delighted to be given A1-sized sheets of paper and they all want to talk about home. Now, my previous digression on further learning had a point: we were told to not talk to the kids about their past, ever. I get that, and then I also don’t. How can one expect someone, let alone a kid, to have forgotten all about their previous life? No, we are told that they need to focus on the future and forget about the past. This is a valid point, again. However, how can you let go of your past if you just go from experiencing events, sometimes traumatic, to some kind of – all things considered – wonderland where you’d be simply told “Just pretend this hasn’t happened and everything will be fine, move on”. I’m not surprised, knowing that Germany is a country where, when depressed, you have the choice to either be institutionalized straight away if you can’t handle the wait or go through a nightmarish journey of several months before being kindly issued with the possibility of a carefully counted number of appointments with a counselor. So, of course it doesn’t feel comfortable for either sides to talk about traumatic experiences. Of course it’s not enjoyable. But putting a lid on the pressure cooker doesn’t make the water stop boiling, so while I wouldn’t go on and ask any kid whether he or she still feels the trauma or feel anxious or what not, I think trauma, when dealt with with a sense of normality, can also be overcome by talking about it.
Besides, all of the posters being prepared deal with just that: the past. All those kids want to share a bit of their history. They don’t want to talk about the shelter they’re in, where lights are on from 6am and prevent them to sleep or to work depending on the time in the evening. None of them want to talk about the present. It’s either the past or the future, and in order to project themselves healthily in whatever comes next they need to feel that it’s ok to deal with their past. So all of them, facing those computers, are googling images of their native countries. Which makes me realize that I definitely failed at installing some kind of parental filter. Just don’t look for “Syria”, “Iraq” or “Kurdistan”. Fortunately, nothing too bad comes up as me and some of the older kids supervise the youngest.
One of them, Fouad, our youngest, who is only 12 but looks rather like an 8 year old, comes from Palestine but was born and raised in Syria. He’s restless all the time and very lively to put it mildly, but today he’s beyond excited as he’s so happy to show us his hometown. Then, of course, a few images down the line and we’re seeing a rubber boat filled with refugees on the Mediterranean. Fouad wants to click on it to make it full-screen. “Look, look!! that’s the boat we took to come here, I swear I swear!!” he says, ecstatic. I place my two hands in front of his eyes as he clicks so he misses the big picture, literally, and I say “yeah yeah Fouad we know we know, let’s rather see your town before the war, ok?”. I did exactly what I ranted against earlier on, I prevented him from confronting his past, but I try to draw the line with images of distress (NOT okay) and reminiscing about everything that was good (totally fine). Those kids didn’t spend their lives on a dinghy and in a war-torn country. They also lived in beautiful places we know nothing about. And I want them to remember the beauty, always, because that’s what will eventually help them think fondly of their lives before.
Of course, we teachers are also told that “Give them the language, that’s where the emphasis should be put!”, which is completely valid. But if you arrive to a country and learn to master its language without understanding any of its social and cultural codes, what kind of integration is that? So presenting their hometowns, for example, is a good start to compare them to their current location. And from then on, to explain one thing or two about the place they call home now.
The only topic I’m not sure about is that of my protégé du moment (current protégé), Muatasem. He is adamant that he wants to tell us about his journey alone from Syria to Germany. So I monitor him for a while as he looks for maps in order to retrace his itinerary. Those are the moments when you are reminded that a 14 year old worked for months on end in a Turkish leather factory in order to pay for his not so safe passage towards Europe. When you find out that he hitchhiked his way through the Balkans, that he walked 70 km in two days in order to cross some border, alone. And asking him about it makes him feel like his experience is one worth sharing. He speaks, and he smiles as he sees my face, although I try to remain very matter of factly about it all and nod in appreciation of his efforts. We retrace his itinerary as he scribbles on his notebook about the most defining moments. He concludes: “It’s quieter since I’ve been here”. You bet.
Meanwhile, Fouad has already taken advantage of me being busy to order around two girls who are doing the work for him. He’s saved by the bell as our course is already over but everyone managed to gather relevant and neutral information about their hometown.
Four hours and a couple of irregular verbs later with the other class, I think today’s adventures are over. But no. As soon as I get out of school, I face one of last year’s kids who seems to be waiting here. “Heyyyyyy Bashar (he didn’t chose, and yes he is from Syria) what are you doing here!” I’m so thrilled to see him again. “I’m waiting for Muatasem!” he says. Yey, they still hang out together! We shake hands very formally as we stare at each other to notice the changes; I basically aged a year and probably sport some new wrinkles, whereas he still looks like a teenager. I ask him how he’s been. He attends a new school now, where he can learn a craft as opposed to only learn theory, which wasn’t his cup of tea. He’s doing well and above all: he’s here! Last year he kept on telling me he’d cross back from Greece to Turkey so as to be reunited with his family. Of course, things still look bad as his family still isn’t here, but at least he’s content enough with his new school and has made friends.
It gives me a much needed boost for the rest of my day, which I already foresee as almost over but no, not yet. Talk about unexpected encounters. I feel rather empty following a series of circumstances but when the train arrives and I get in, rather than going to sit alone as I usually seek to do when tired, I spot a young man staring expectantly at me from his sit. My first reaction would be to play it safe and go sit somewhere else as I’ve seen a fair share of weirdos in Berlin U-Bahns. But this man, well, I’ve seen those boats. He looks like he was in a rubbet boat. I know, I’m prejudiced, but here comes the spoiler: I was proven right.
Anyway, as I make my way towards the retractable seat, the young man hurries to unfold it and smiles shyly. From afar I thought we were of similar age, but upon sitting next to him I realize he must be (much) younger. I’m not going to stalk the poor youngster so I just take out my book and start reading (DeLillo, Americana, which I had started months ago and got distracted from. One day I’ll also have a literary blog. Should I footnote the novel I was about to write just to depict this particular book? Ok, fine, I’ll skip it for now). I barely have time to read two sentences that our young man politely enquires: “Excuse me Madame, what means Nähe?”. I look up from my book scrutinizing his face. Maybe he’s a creep after all and he’s asking me about closeness so as to be promiscuous? But no, he simply holds a paper with a few German sentences and underlined words and adjectives, with Nähe among them. The woman facing our seats looks at me and rolls her eyes, as if she thought it was the worst chat-up line ever. I on the contrary am thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to a stranger because I really think he’s whom I think he is: one of them, a refugee. Here to steal our jobs etc . I smile back with the most candid smile I know so the woman doesn’t know how to react and I live her rot in her prejudices while I turn towards my new buddy. You can see that he wasn’t sure how I’ll react, I wonder to which amount he was exposed to racism ever since he came here (yes, we don’t sport the same skin colour either). I ask him if he speaks English (in English), and he says, no, just German. “Just German?”, I say, playfully. “Nein, und Triginya auch”, he answers. “Right, let’s stick with German at first, I said. I didn’t want to impress him with my fluent Triginya, obviously. I can picture you all nodding knowingly, pretending you knew about Tigrinya. Just in case that some of you might want to have a quick recap of the origins of the Triginya language, here is a link which will also give away the country of birth of my travel buddy. Leaving Triginya out of the conversation for now, I place my hands close to one another and say in German: “look, now they’re nah (close)“. I widen the space between my hands as he follows with his eyes, amused. “And now they’re entfernt, weit (far)”. He looks enquiringly. “You and I are close, sitting just next to one another”, I keep on. “Whereas this woman here, hi woman…”, I interject at the not so amused woman from before, who still rolls her eyes, so maybe she suffers from strabism after all, I shouldn’t poke fun at her like that, “…this woman here is entfernt [thank God, I think]”, I say. “Aaaaah, so Wohnst du in der Nähe means do you live in the area?”, he says. “Precisely!”, I smile, and we kind of share that awkward moment where, all questions having been answered, none of the protagonists know how to continue. I dive my nose back into my DeLillo again. “Err, miss?”, he asks again. “Yup?”. “Do you mind…?” he begins, showing me the paper. “Helping you with those? Naaaah of course I don’t mind, let’s get started”, I say, all ready to find out more about why he’s learning German. At this stage, I can see that his eyes are older than me, yet I can feel he’s younger. Seen too much, again, as always. I help him with the pronunciation, as some bystanders look at us, some amused, others indifferent. Why is it so weird for some to talk to strangers? A couple of stations down the journey, I dare to ask: “So, what are you up to in Berlin?”. “Oh, me? Well..I study…”, he begins, carefully. He probably still doesn’t know whether to trust me or not. Definitely younger. “For how long have you been here”, I continue. “About a year now!”, with each question and my goody-two-shoes face of the day I guess I’m pretty worthy of his trust at this stage. “I’ve been here for seven years now!” I tell him, and ask: “Where do you come from?”. “I’m from Eritrea…and in a month I will be granted my three years asylum here”, he says, as he begins to smile broadly. “What, for sure? you got it?!” I ask. “Yes! I’m very happy about it!” he says, before looking completely baffled when I say “aaah mashallah!” out of classroom habit. I correct myself with a “Ah, Glückwunsche, I meant!”, to which he smiles.
Again, what to ask next? Any question on the journey will bring back painful memories. They must be painful since he has a massive scar rounding his skull, and the shape of the latter makes me think it has been opened when that scar appeared. But I feel it’s ok so I venture: “You went to Italy before?”, which could be both understood as Roman Holiday and as journey through hell. The latter his confirmed as he says:”Yes! I arrived in Italy. Went through Libya and so on!”. Smiling. He said that with a massive smile. I tell him I was between Italy and Libya on a small island some days ago. He tells me his boat arrived in Sicily. He arrived, how many didn’t that day? It was in August 2015. One thing I have learned is to keep pretending everything is fine on the surface while I’m completely crushed upon hearing their stories, so I do just what he does, I keep on smiling and chitchatting about that terrible topic. It turns out he spent twelve days in France after Italy and before reaching Germany, so I wonder if one of the French people currently put on trial for helping refugees at the French border helped him at the time. He seems to have a good enough memory of France, strangely. “You’re better off here”, I say. “Why?” he asks. “Well, you know, I’m French. I’ll just say that refugee communities are bigger here so it might be easier to settle here…”. I don’t want to speak ill of my own country. Besides, his case seems to be sorted. His turn to ask: “What is is that you do here?”. “Well, I have two jobs, mostly. I teach German to refugees, and when I’m not doing that I’m also a journalist and I report…mostly on refugees!”, I say. He’s baffled: “No?! seriously? you teach to us?”. At this point we reach a station where three other men from that big scary country that is Africa (a whole new definition of a continent I got to find out about when in Malta) come in and sit next to us. I can see them looking at my buddy and him at them. They don’t look like they come from the same country or background, since they speak something my companion doesn’t seem to recognize. It was funny to witness though, as they seemed to gauge each other in a “and you, what’s your story” kind of way. Since we seem to still have some time to travel together, the Tigrinya speaker finally asks: “What is your name?”. I introduce myself. He can’t pronounce my nickname. I really can’t shorten it any further; the three other guys tell him “it’s Emma. Emm-A”, and he gets it. Then they mind their own business. So I was right about that gauging each other moment, they were as nosy as I was about my young companion who finally introduces himself as “Yoannes”. “Right”, I say, “now what is your real name?”. “No but it really is Yoannes!”, he insists. And the light came: “Ah, you’re a Christian!”. He seems elated: “Yes!!! are you one as well?!”. “Errr, no. Well, I was. And not anymore, but I know the Apostles”, I explain. “Why not Christian anymore?”, he asks, curious. “Hey, you ask that? Have you seen the state of the world?!”, I laugh. That makes him laugh a lot too. “Ah but I still believe in God!”, he says. Well maybe the day I’m on a rubber boat and stucked with people whose majority is not going to make it, me included, I’ll have a late resurgence of a former belief but right now I’m pretty sure this won’t happen any time soon. He asks me to type the word atheistisch in his German-Tigrinya dictionnary, to which I comply happily, as eager as a Jehovah’s Witness at the prospect of luring a new prey into its trap. Jokes aside, once we found the equivalent in his language, I look for the first time at written Tigrinya, and it’s very pretty. He teaches me some letters. The three men in front of us are commenting on us, they probably thing we’re flirting while I get more and more the feeling that this young man could be one of my schoolboys. While he’s showing me the alphabet, I ask him “So you’re sorted here, right?”. “Yes! I’m at school now, and I hope to get an apprenticeship next year when I’ll speak good enough!” he says. “So which class did you complete in Eritrea?”, I ask. “I went till the 12th”, Yoannes says. So he’s probably under 20 or just about that age. I’m all the more glad about his asylum being granted next month.
The train arrives in Yorckstrasse. “That’s my stop!”, he says, carefully pronouncing the word I taught him earlier during the journey: Haltestelle. I’m sad we have to part but so happy about this silver lining. “Well, good luck to you!” I say as we shake hands before he leaves. I can’t read anymore, too thrilled about this new encounter. A passing one, I’ll never see him again and perhaps that’s just the beauty of it. At the next stop, the three men who were facing us get up, and I look up as one of them winks at me, touches the tip of his cap and bows. Literally, not in a flirty way but just because he seemed to have enjoyed watching us learning German together. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe it’s ill intended but I chose to not think so. So I laugh and wink back as the train doors close, having no cap to tip, and feeling that life is going to be just fine – after all.